02/05/2015 11:16AM

Rillito Park making best of reprieve

Jim Dunleavy
Rillito Park, in danger of closing after last year's meet, opens for a 20-day season on Saturday.

More than a few times, Rillito Park stared death in the face, but never so seriously as last year. Yet once again, the historic Tucson, Ariz., track got a reprieve – at least for the time being.

The 20-day 2015 meet commences Saturday and runs through April 11, with racing on Saturdays and Sundays. There will be no live racing on Easter Sunday (April 5), and there will be two Friday programs (March 27 and April 10). Rillito will conduct both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing, and the highlight of the meet is the $65,000-estimated El Moro de Cumpas, a 350-yard event for 3-year-olds and up March 21.

Just a year ago, the track was preparing for what seemed certain to be its final meet. Pima County, where the track is located, planned to convert the site into a soccer facility. But last July, the Pima County Board of Supervisors awarded the track’s lease to Rillito Racing Inc., a subsidiary of the nonprofit Rillito Park Foundation. The group won the competitive bid against the Pima County Horsemen’s Association, which had conducted the meets here for more than 25 years.

The lease on the property extends for just another year, and the possibility of turning the grandstand and track into a soccer facility will be revisited after the meet.

Rillito has no small amount of history. Quarter Horse racing was first conducted here in 1943. In 1953, the oval track was installed for Thoroughbred racing. Rillito Park was one of the first tracks to implement the use of the photo-finish camera.

Rillito Park has hired Mike Weiss, formerly of Beulah Park, as general manager and director of racing. Weiss worked at Beulah for 23 years as racing secretary and then vice president and general manager. He helped reopen North Dakota Horse Park in 2012.

Weiss said improvements have been made to the grandstand, the racing surface, and the stable area.

“These guys are committed to this place,” Weiss said of the Rillito Park Foundation. “They’re pouring their money into this. We’re doing a lot on the physical plant, trying to modernize the place, make it a better experience for the patron. Just this past week, we’ve added 100 TVs, and we’re going to have simulcast wagering as well.

“The county is even helping out with the stable upgrade, so while we’re only guaranteed this one year, I have a hard time believing that, short of a disaster, they’re not going to pour their money into this and then deny a lease for the coming years.”

Weiss said he hopes to persuade the 3,000 to 6,000 people who show up on race days to push more money through the windows.

“One thing that lured me here was the enthusiasm,” he said. “I came here last year and couldn’t even get close to the horses in the paddock due to the crowd. There’s certainly an appeal for a well-run racetrack in this area.”